by Allison Winter, Virginia Mercury
May 4, 2022
The Navy is investigating three apparent suicides that happened last month among the crew of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, currently docked for an extensive maintenance and overhaul in Newport News.
The recent spate of suicides, which happened within one week in April, add to the tragic toll of the ship. Nine crew members have died over the past two years, six of those are suspected suicides, Navy officials said yesterday.
The deaths highlight the unique and often overlooked stressors of Navy life in what seems like the relatively safe harbor of a U.S. port.
The head of the Naval Air Force Atlantic, Rear Adm. John Meier, told reporters Tuesday that the Navy will undertake two investigations: one immediately about whether there were any immediate issues or linkages in the three separate April suicides of sailors from the ship. A second, broader investigation will take a look at “systemic stressors to working in the shipyard environment.”
“Any time we lose a sailor, it’s gut-wrenching. And I can only imagine the loss that the parents feel in that regard. I can really think of no greater loss,” said Meier.
The George Washington has been undergoing an extended refurbishment at Newport News Shipbuilding since 2017 – a process that effectively turns the carrier into a construction zone to prepare it for another 25 years at sea. The complex overhaul has been extended in part due to delays during the COVID-19 pandemic. Navy officials recently estimated the refueling and refurbishment of the nuclear-powered ship would conclude in March 2023, almost two years later than originally expected.
Some sailors moved aboard in April 2021. With the extended repair time on the ship, Meier said that in hindsight that was too long for the sailors to be on the ship in the midst of repair.
Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, toured the ship Tuesday with Navy officials and the President of Newport News Shipbuilding Jennifer Boykin.
In a call with reporters afterwards, Luria said she has concerns but did not see any “large red flags” on her tour of the ship and conversations with crew members.
“I would say, I think the captain and the command master chief, the command triad, I would say they have their heads and hearts in the right place,” Luria told reporters Tuesday. “They are doing everything they can with the resources available through the Navy to help move sailors off the ship, to help get additional resources for mental health care.”
In response to the recent deaths, the Navy offered to allow sailors to move off the ship. More than 200 sailors moved this week to other accommodations – about half of the sailors that had been assigned bunks on the ship. Navy officials are also planning to stop work on the vessel for two days to discuss mental health and quality of life.
But Luria, who served two decades in the Navy and retired at the rank of commander, said the military needs to do a better job of identifying problems and stressors before they turn into a crisis.
“Why does it take such a tragic string of events for the Navy to step in and look at all the things that could be contributing factors and change their practices?” Luria said.
The crew of another aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, had a similar loss when four crew members committed suicide during its overhaul in Norfolk in 2019.
Luria, the Vice Chair of the House Armed Services Committee said she plans to look into oversight and budgeting for living conditions at the shipyard. Other aging aircraft carriers will also undergo an overhaul at Newport News, so the issue of crew members docked there will be ongoing for decades.
Luria said improvements could be as “small as parking.” Insufficient parking near the ship makes it difficult for crew to live offboard and commute to work. Some sailors spend two to three hours a day in the commute. A shuttle bus that runs to a remote parking lot takes extra time and has cost about $15 million over the five-year overhaul, according to Luria. She suggested that money could be better spent building a parking garage at the gate, to provide a longer-term solution.
“Those are the kind of questions I plan to follow up with the Navy,” Luria said.
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